Don’t Let the Hot Start Fool You, The Guardians Need To Be Over-Comers

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Despite their reputation as the youngest team in baseball and some awful injury luck on the pitching front, the Cleveland Guardians are one of Major League Baseball’s hottest teams with a little more than two weeks of the regular season completed.

Cleveland finds itself atop what is a surprisingly competitive American League Central division. I am writing this between games of Saturday’s doubleheader vs. the Yankees, so they hold a 9-4 record, good enough the second best in the American League. Perhaps more impressively, the are tied for the MLB lead in Run Differential, a simple metric that takes how many runs a team has scored and subtracts how many runs they have allowed. The Guardians have outscored their opponents by 34 runs this season. Division rival Kansas City (surprisingly) is the only other team in the AL with a Run Differential above 25.

To this point, one could question if the Guardians have been propped up by facing week competition. No team they have faced coming into Saturday’s doubleheader vs New York has a better winning percentage than .429 so far in this short season. The subsequent games on Saturday and Sunday (which may be going on as you read this) against the Bronx Bombers will be the first genuine time for Cleveland to test their mettle. The Yankees are the one team in the AL with a better record than the Guards.

Schedule Aside, How Have the Guards Found Success So Far?

Teams don’t get to the best Run Differential in the game by not being successful in all facets. The Guardians are no exception. Cleveland came into the season with major concerns about how they would generate runs, but to this point have exceeded expectations. The Guardians came into Saturday 6th in Runs per Game. They’ve found surprising success by resorting to an old M.O., coming in 8th as a team in batting average.

What’s been most critical has been their ability to hit with runners already on base. They’ve been spectacular in this facet of the game. Coming into Saturday, they’re hitting .323 with runners on with a .384 On Base Percentage in the same situation. Both are good enough for 3rd best in all of baseball. Coupled with a renewed emphasis on smart but aggressive base-running under new manager Stephen Vogt and few teams are taking advantage of their scoring opportunities better than Cleveland is.

As for individual players, look no further than a few guys that have become Cleveland mainstays in recent years. Josh Naylor has posted a 190 wRC+, which would put him in the top 12 hitters in all of baseball. He’s slashing .333/.417/.641 so far with three home runs and nine RBI.

Meanwhile, no one in baseball has more base hits than Steven Kwan right now. Kwan came into Saturday with 22 hits in 12 games and has scored 13 times (tied for the AL lead) in those same 12 games. He’s leading the AL with a .386 batting average and doing so despite the fact that his strikeouts are up and walks are down. A change to a more aggressive approach with more swing and miss potential has not hurt his production.

Lastly, Andres Gimenez is hitting .326 in the early campaign with a team leading five doubles. He is currently coupling a very strong .418 OBP with continued elite level defense at second base. Joining Kwan, Naylor and Jose Ramirez in the top four spots of the batting order vs. right-handed pitching, this group is making for a very formidable top portion of the lineup for opposing teams to grapple with.

Even with the unanticipated offensive success, the Guardians pitching has been even better. Cleveland’s pitching staff came into Saturday 4th in team ERA (2.84) and was best in baseball in Fielder Independent Pitching (3.04), spurred on by the best K-rate (27%) in the sport.

They’ve done this despite the fact that outside of two starts from Shane Bieber, their starting rotation’s performance has been awfully pedestrian. Rather, their bullpen has really carried the water for the Guards on the mound.

Cleveland’s bullpen entered Saturday with a 1.29 ERA. That’s the best in the game among bullpens. They’re second in FIP (2.46) and 3rd in K-rate (30.4%). What is most astonishing though is that until the sixth inning of Saturday’s first game, no pitch that a Guardians’ reliever has thrown had ended up sailing over a fence for a home run. Not one. The Guards’ pen made it 49 innings into the season without allowing a dinger. No other relief staff made it to Saturday without having allowed one.

Cade Smith, Nick Sandlin, Hunter Gaddis, Tyler Beede, Peter Strezlecki and Emmanuel Clase came into Saturday combining for 33 1/3 innings pitched. None of them have allowed a single run until Sandlin allowed the aforementioned homer in the sixth inning on Game One on Saturday. Clase (1.22 FIP, hasn’t allowed a walk) and Sandlin (1.46 expected ERA, 42.3% K-rate) had been especially dominant during this early season run.

So to summarize, the team’s core hitters are off to a strong start. They are scoring runs at a clip that was very much not anticipated and while the starting rotation is still getting its feet under it, the bullpen has been nearly untouchable. That’s a recipe for one of the best starts in the game. At the same time, with Saturday’s loss to the Yankees, there are questions of if these successful few weeks are sustainable.

So, Why Would it Be Sustainable? How Can It Be?

On the pitching end of things, the Guardians are going to need to find ways to get some length out of their starting rotation. Triston McKenzie, Tanner Bibee and Logan Allen all need to be better deeper into ballgames. Gavin Williams needs to come back with a clean bill of health. Carlos Carrasco needs to have more results like Saturday’s, even if it was in a loss. His FIP suggests that he has had some poor luck and that he is capable of strong outings, although I don’t expect him to pitch into the sixth very often.

The bullpen has done an exemplary job so far of carrying everyone’s weight. But they will wear thin and be much less imposing if they are tasked with being flawless every night from the fifth inning on. The good news here is that the Guards do have a pedigree and history that suggests they can indeed ease the bullpen’s burden.

If there’s a bigger concern with the pitching, it has to be with the team’s Statcast data. The Guards came into Saturday in second place in all of baseball in HR/9 allowed. By comparison, they came into Saturday allowing the 20th best Barrel rate. Barrels are balls that were hit at an exit velocity of 95 mph and at a certain angle that suggests they would be hard hit line drives or home runs. The idea is to quantify how often hitters are literally hitting the ball solidly on the barrel (think back to when you may have played ball and hit a ball so solid that you didn’t even feel it off that bat- that was a barrel).

In short, being 2nd in HR/9 but 20th in Barrel rate does not compute. The Guardians’ pitchers are doing a really great job at missing bats. Baseball’s best K-rate confirms that. But it does appear that Guardians’ hurlers are getting lucky when balls do indeed get put in play- the 27th best EV50 (a measure of inducing soft contact) suggests this just as much as their barrel rate does.

Again, not all is probably lost here. The Guardians rotation is very much capable of performing better and that would do a lot not just to keep the pen rested after a hot start, but it would likely help the metrics look better, and more importantly, keep their success on the field more likely. Additionally, batted ball analytics don’t matter as much when you are the best team in the game in striking hitters out.

Well, What About the Offense? The Guards Are Hitting the Ball Harder This Year, Right?… Right?!?!

Unfortunately, the Statcast data related to Cleveland’s offense really muddies the waters. Expected statistics are a way to convert quality of contact into a theoretical batting average, slugging percentage or wOBA (basically, one number that combines and weighs on base and slugging accurately). They provide a likelihood of success for specific balls that were hit based off similar hits that have happened in the past. If a player’s expected wOBA is lower than his real life wOBA based on the results of his hits, that suggests that he has been getting lucky results (bloops, bleeders, misplayed balls, etc).

Four Guardians have started this season with their expected wOBA being 50 points higher than their real wOBA. They are: Steven Kwan, Andres Gimenez, Josh Naylor and Jose Ramirez. So, all three guys I have highlighted as having strong starts, plus the team’s inarguable best player.

The team’s collective data isn’t much more promising. The Guardians came into play on Saturday 29th in Barrel rate, (3.6%) and 28th in Hard Hit% (32.8%, a stat that is exactly what it sounds like- balls hit hard, at a high velocity off the bat). For all their talk of wanting to swing harder this year and do more damage, and for all the positive results they have legitimately seen on the scoreboard, it does not appear that they have actually been hitting the ball any harder.

Cleveland finished dead last in both stats last year. Their Barrel rate was actually 0.1% better last year than it has been so far this year. Their Hard Hit% rounds to the same percentage point in both seasons- 33%. I hate to say it, but there has been very little measurable advancement in how Cleveland’s lineup is actually squaring up baseballs.

So, This Has All Been A Mirage and We Are Totally Doomed?!

No, here’s the weird thing. Doing such a poor job of squaring up baseballs last year gave the Guardians the 22nd best offense in baseball based on wRC+ last year- not good, but not the worst. But with essentially the same Barrel Rates and Hard Hit %s in 2022 (3.6% and 33.1%, respectively), the Guardians were 15th in wRC+- actually above the league average.

All of the past two seasons and now into the new year, the Guardians have profiled as basically the same team when making contact. They legitimately make some of the weakest in the league. But one year they were a perfectly adequate offense, the next they weren’t very good but weren’t the worst, and so far this year, they look like one of the better ones.

I cannot buy into the idea that the Guards are going to be a top offense in baseball this year. They just haven’t changed who they are enough for that to make any sense. They don’t hit the ball hard enough or over the fence enough. However, there is a proof of concept that they could be in the top half of baseball in offense, and that’s been good enough for them to win 92 games just two years ago. A hot start has to breed confidence and could be an indicator that the team could replicate that season’s playoff run.

This Has Been a Lot of Talking in Circles, What Does This All Really Mean?

It’s going to need to be a full team effort. The starting rotation needs to return to form. Doing so without their ace will require all hands stepping up. Their bullpen looks like it could be one of the most elite in the game, if they aren’t worn down by August. The offense needs to continue to take every extra base, be proficient situational hitters and take advantage of other teams’ mistakes.

There is a blueprint here for Guardians’ success this season, but they are going to need to be over-comers. Success isn’t the foregone conclusion that the early going would suggest.

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